This I Believe: France
[Please note: this is over 500 words, but it’s “modular,” meaning you can pick and choose which paragraphs to include/exclude, without hurting the general piece. I figured it was better to let you pick which to keep and which to cut, rather than me guessing.]
I believe in France. In America, this is no small ordeal. Apparently, despite the PC world we live in, the French join the Rednecks (a la comic Jeff Foxworthy) as the only demographic it’s always safe, acceptable, even encouraged to insult. If you ever visited the Germany Pavilion at Epcot Center and immediately issued a unilateral surrender, you may be a Frenchman. If you use your cheese knife more than you use your bath towel, you may be a Frenchman. If you have ever ridden a bicycle carrying bread under your arm, you may be a Frenchman. The Simpsons didn’t refer to the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys for nothing.
Yet, I persist in believing in France. I believe in French innovation. At worst, France is a lovable loser. The French co-invented the World Wide Web, and had internet-ready computer-like terminals available to every home as early as 1982. But they failed to seize on its commercial potential, and used it primarily as an online phonebook and porn venue. Americans took the internet ball and ran with it, and now the French are left trying to safeguard their language from terms like “le web” and “le podcast.”
I believe in French historical perspective. History has a different meaning for the French. In the US, a 1970s-era collectible Star Wars glass from Burger King is a low-grade antique, and a Buck Rogers lunchbox is an heirloom. The French are on a totally different timetable than we are. I once asked a Frenchman how his countrymen could be on such good terms with the Germans, even co-leading efforts to European unification with them, despite being invaded and frankly humiliated by them twice in the past one hundred years. The Frenchman shrugged (of course) and responded that France had been at war with England for almost one thousand years… “now that’s a real rivalry!”
I believe in the intersection between French innovation and history. If a Parisian ever loses his ruler or meter stick, she needs only visit a couple of convenient locations in Paris where sample meters were posted in 1793, during the Revolution-era invention of the meter. (The French invented the meter! That’s like being Steve Gallon or Peter Inch or something!) Just hold a piece of string up to the wall-mounted scale, snip at the meter line, and you’re ready to measure. It bears explicitly stating that the sample meter, and the building where the sample meter is posted, are roughly the same age as our nation.
There is much we could learn from France. I believe in the admirable French work/life balance. When a store has a sign in the window bragging “service continue” or “continuous service,” they don’t mean that the store is open 24/7, only that they don’t close down the shop at lunchtime. Now that’s sacrifice!
I believe in the French health care system. American pharmacists can sometime make just getting a prescription filled seem like a terrible ordeal. On the other hand, not only do French pharmacists dispense loads of free and useful medical advice, they are also trained to separate edible mushrooms from poisonous ones. So, happy gathering!
I may not believe in French hypocrisy, but I am at least bemused by it. The French believe strongly in the separation of church and state. Yet, holy days such as the Assumption and All Saints’ Day remain national holidays, and French schools frequently still do not serve meat on Fridays.
I believe in French ideals, though not always their repercussions. The French admirably feel that all their citizens are simply equal Frenchmen, so they gather no racial census data. This hopeful but idealistic strategy creates a statistical “One France,” but masks huge racial disparities in education, unemployment, and the like.
I believe in French urban benevolent dictatorship. In Paris, the world’s greatest city, when it is clear that a project will be beloved post-facto by the people, pre-project opposition is blissfully ignored. When Paris’ gay Socialist mayor decided prior to the summer of 2002 that what sulky, city-stranded Parisians needed was their very own beach, he acted with ruthless benevolent efficiency. He had two thousand tons of sand dumped on Paris’ Seine-side expressways, moored floating swimming pools to the river’s banks, planted palm trees, brought in ice cream shacks and chair rental cabanas, and declared four weeks of “Paris Plage,” or “Paris Beach.” Despite taking a key rush hour commuter route out of operation for a month, the project was an instant and massive popular success. If we tried this in America, we would still be at the environmental impact phase, and the Triple A would be holding weekly protest news conferences.
I believe in France. Given some of what we see today in “New America,” there are certainly days when “Old Europe,” and France in particular, doesn’t seem so bad.
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